How can you tell if it’s a crow or a raven?
This question often comes up in my email and social media so I thought I’d re-post this blog from a few years ago.
I was partly inspired by having coincidentally photographed both a crow and a raven in very similar poses and both against a red background just recently.
I thought it was fun to see the two images together.
The two pictures highlight a couple of the most obvious differences between crows and ravens. You can see that the raven’s beak is a lot heftier than that of the crow. The raven also has that rather opulent display of throat feathers
There are a lot of excellent resources to help out with learning to tell ravens from crows (more on these later) — but in this post I’m working mostly from my own observations, made from over a decade of daily corvid-watching.
First of all, if you just catch a glimpse of a crow/raven mystery bird flying over you — check out the tail shape.
The raven’s tail feathers form a diamond shape, while the crow’s tail is in more of a flat-edged fan arrangement.
While you’re watching them in flight, note if they’re doing more soaring or flapping.
Raven are more prone to using the air currents for long, effortless glides, while crows tend to rely more on flapping.
That being said — I have seen crows having a lot of fun on windy days, just riding the gusts of wind like a roller coaster.
As I mentioned earlier, the raven is distinguished by a rather magnificent arrangement of throat feathers — something like an very luxurious cravat.
Crows, while also (of course) magnificent in their own way, are less generously endowed in the cravat department. Sometimes, when they fluff up as part of grooming, or to look fierce, their throat feathers can look a bit “raven-y” — but generally they’re smoother.
Having been unable to persuade either species to remain still while I measure them, I’ve had to rely on information gleaned from the internet here.
Ravens, I’ve read, measure up to 67 cm (26 inches) long with a wingspan of up to 130 (51 inches). Their smaller relatives, the crow are about 46 cm (18 inches) long and have a wingspan of around 95 cm (36 inches).
Unless you happen to see them sitting side by side at an equal distance from you, it’s difficult to make an identification based on size alone.
If you see a large black corvid being mobbed by one or more smaller ones, you can pretty much guarantee that the big one is a raven and s/he is being harassed by the crow Neighbourhood Watch committee.
In spite of their family connections, ravens will blithely raid crow nests for a tasty egg snack — putting them firmly on the crows’ “naughty list” along with eagles, hawks, racoons, squirrels, coyotes, cats and etc.
Both crows and ravens normally mate for life.
In the city, crow pairs tend to claim half a block or so as their territory. They spend most of their daylight hours there and will usually chase off other crows who cross the invisible crow boundaries.
At night, however, the Vancouver crows turn to safety in numbers as protection against dangers that lurk in the dark. Just before dusk the crows gather in larger and larger groups as they all fly, sometimes looking like a river of crows, to the roost at Still Creek. It’s “the more the merrier” as they congregate around the roosting area , with lots of loud crow calling before they all settle in for the night in tree branches or on Hydro wires or buildings.
Ravens don’t form roosts, but they do seem to gather in larger groups when there’s a good food source to be shared. Not always, but occasionally, the area around the local ski hill parking lots have lots of ravens hanging around together.
It’s not the size of the crow roost by any means, but it does seem to be a social occasion.
It’s on days like these I’ve witnessed the ravens playing with snowballs and engaging in other playful activities. It always seems to be that they gather when there are a lot of humans up at the ski hill, dropping food and leaving sandwiches unattended. A sunny Spring Break ski day seems to draw a lot of ravens to the parking lot as it did the day of the Raven Soap Opera in Two Acts.
By far the easiest way to tell a crow from a raven is by the sound they make.
Crows caw and ravens have more of a croaking sound. But that’s a great simplification of their complicated call sets.
Here are just few examples to help you tell them apart:
CROW ALARM CALL
This is probably the most common corvid you’ll hear in a city. This example is Marvin and Mavis expressing their displeasure at our cat being out on the deck.
CROW “RATTLE” CALL
This is another crow call, less often heard because it’s a softer, more intimate form of crow-munication.
This seems to be the most common raven call I hear, both in the city and in the mountains.
RAVEN KNOCKING CALL
This beautiful sound is more like the crow’s rattle call – more subtle and melodic – almost like water dripping or a hollow bamboo tube being tapped.
See also: When The Raven Knocks
In this clip a raven seems to be performing a jazz concert of different subtle sounds — an example of how complex corvid language is.
When it comes to confidence and attitude, ravens and crows have so much in common.
Both are highly intelligent birds — you can almost hear the cogs of their brains whirring as they work out myriad “risk/benefit” calculations when they come close to humans.
It’s really not surprising that both crows and ravens are often characterized as tricksters in stories and legends.
Kaeli Swift – Corvid Research
One of the best places to find out all about corvids is on Kaeli Swift’s awesome blog Corvid Research. Kaeli covers every corvid related topic you can think of in her posts. You can also follow her on social media and participate in her skill-building weekly Crow or No? contests.
His books In The Company of Crows and Ravens and Gifts of the Crows, are just full of interesting information on both of these amazing birds.
For lots of information and studies on raven behaviour, check out Heinrich’s Ravens in Winter and Mind of the Raven.